MONTREAL (JTA) – Canadian Jewish leaders have taken up the effort to free a Canadian-Israeli businessman incarcerated in an Indian prison infested with rats and scorpions for an expired visa violation.
Saul Itzhayek, 42, an electronic components buyer, was arrested last May during a business trip to the region.
Jewish leaders say the prison sentence, even if technically lawful, is unfair. They also point to Itzhayek’s deteriorating health – family members say he has lost some 65 pounds since being sent to Motahari prison and is suffering from severe depression – as a reason for his urgent release.
Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, a prominent international human rights lawyer and a Jewish member of the Liberal Party, led a delegation to Ottawa in late January to press for Itzhayek’s release.
The group, which included Jewish and interfaith leaders, met with Canada’s secretary of state and foreign affairs, Helena Guergis, and India’s high commissioner to Canada, Rajamani Lakshmi Narayan.
Cotler said he considers Itzhayek’s arrest a “form of entrapment” and “hardly criminal conduct worthy of this penalty.”
“I called on the Indian government to invoke any executive remedy they deem appropriate,” Cotler said, adding that Narayan acknowledged to him that Itzhayek was not being accused of anything other than entering India with an expired visa.
Itzhayek had gone to Nepal to source a specialty component when Indian authorities contacted him to say they had seized a car, supposedly stolen, belonging to his business associate that contained some of Itzhayek’s travel documents.
The police asked Itzhayek to cross the border to sign for his belongings. Though his visa had expired, Itzhayek was told he would be allowed to enter and leave the country without a problem. But Itzhayek was arrested in India and sentenced to three years in prison for a visa violation.
Itzhayek is married and has two teenage children. His wife, Marina, has been able to speak with her husband occasionally by phone.
Itzhayek’s sister, Sylvia, recalled receiving “a frantic call” from her sister-in-law in early June informing her of the arrest on May 29.
“It was a big shock,” Sylvia Itzhayek told JTA.
“I called the prison and tried speak to him, but no one spoke English except one man who was only there in the middle of the night our time. So in the beginning, whenever I would call, they would hang up. It was very frustrating.”
The family continues to hope that the high-level effort to free Itzhayek, which has been mirrored on the grass-roots level, will bear fruit.
Jewish leaders want to know why Itzhayek, who has lived in Montreal since moving here from Israel in 1968, received such a harsh punishment. In many countries, such a minor offense would result at worst in deportation.
The national co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who went with Cotler to Ottawa, called what happened to Itzhayek “an unfortunate thing.”
“There does not appear to be anti-Semitism prevalent between India and world Jewry,” Bulka said. “But because of his frail health, it is imperative that they” – the Indian authorities – “act quickly; otherwise his life may be placed in danger. By the time he comes back he may be only a shadow of his former self and may not be able to recover. That is our main concern.”
Montreal Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, who also went to Ottawa, said the effort to free Itzhayek has Jewish roots.
“As a rabbi, my first feelings were that this unjust captivity is an affront to the Jewish spirit,” he said. “We know slavery, we know captivity and at the Passover seder, we call for freedom. Does Saul deserve any less?
“When an interfaith group comes together to support a cause, you know that something more than politics is at hand. We are talking about a moral issue, about justice for an innocent man.”